A worker, who was not wearing work gloves when he was injured, claimed that his employer did not instruct him that wearing the leather gloves was a mandatory safety precaution.
“Wyatt” started working for SMS Rail Lines in February 2006 as a boom truck operator and railroad track laborer. As required, he passed a written test before he could work on railroad tracks. He was taught how to set railroad track spikes during on-the-job training.
At a daily staff meeting at the start of his shift on August 5, 2008, Wyatt’s assignment for the day was discussed: working with two other track laborers on building a new track-switch panel, off track, by using a 10-pound steel maul head to manually set .8-pound steel spikes 2 inches apart into treated hardwood railroad ties. An independent contractor was delegated as foreman in charge of the jobsite, but Wyatt’s supervisor was ultimately responsible for safety.
When a steel spike “shot out of the tie,” it struck and cut the back of Wyatt’s left wrist. No one else witnessed the accident. His supervisor was about 5 miles away in his worksite trailer.
Even though SMS Rail Lines had provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to all employees, including leather work gloves, Wyatt was not wearing them when he was injured.
Doctors determined that Wyatt needed surgery due to a severed tendon in his left wrist, multiple extensor tendon lacerations, and laceration of the majority of his superficial radial nerve.
The company concluded that the accident and resulting injuries were solely Wyatt’s fault, because he had not followed the company’s safety rules and procedures, which contained “express and repeated instruction that employees are responsible to comply with all rules and instructions … to maintain and wear PPE … [as well as] specific rules for use of a spike maul, setting spikes, and driving spikes.”
Wyatt maintained that the company was at fault because it did not make him aware that wearing the gloves was mandatory. He noted that, 6 months before the accident, his supervisor had instituted a practice of training new employees by having them watch a series of safety videos. However, Wyatt, who had already been working for the company for 2 years when the video training was introduced, was not directed to watch the safety videos until after his accident.
Although he received a copy of the company’s safety rules and procedures, Wyatt argued that the rules do not address setting spikes or the use of gloves, and that the company did not have written rules regarding the use of gloves.
Wyatt filed suit against his employer, alleging that it had violated the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). He sought compensatory damages for his physical injuries, past and future medical care, past and future mental and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and past and future lost earnings.
SMS Rail Lines asked the court to dismiss all claims against it.
What the Court Said
In analyzing the facts of this case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had to determine whether the company was negligent and, if so, whether negligence caused Wyatt’s injury.
In addition, the court had to decide whether Wyatt knew before the accident that he was required to wear gloves while setting railroad spikes and whether the company’s actions or inactions, resulting in his lack of knowledge, were the approximate cause of his injuries. Both the independent contractor who trained Wyatt and the owner’s son (who worked with Wyatt) had testified that they sometimes did not wear gloves.
The court said that, under FELA, every railroad company engaged in interstate commerce may be held liable for employees’ injuries if those injuries are the result of the company’s negligence or any defect or deficiency in its cars, tracks, roadbeds, or work areas.
Under the law, railroad companies are required to use reasonable care to provide employees with “a reasonably safe place to work, reasonably safe conditions to perform their duties, and reasonably safe tools and equipment to complete their jobs,” the court explained. “It is well settled in the 3rd Circuit that a railroad may be found negligent under FELA if it fails to prescribe, promulgate, and/or enforce adequate rules, procedures, and regulations for the safe operation of its equipment, tools, machinery, and appliances.”
The district court denied the company’s request to dismiss the claims, saying a jury should decide the matter and that there was sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that SMS Rail Lines was negligent for failing to define and enforce its own safety rules and/or properly train its employees.
Freitick v. SMS Rail Lines (No. 09-cv-1414) (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 9/17/10)
Make sure all employees are trained. In this case, the company introduced safety training videos for new-hires, but Wyatt, an existing employee, did not receive the same training until after he was injured.
Provide PPE and instruction on how and when to use it. The company issued leather work gloves to all employees, but Wyatt maintained that he was never instructed that wearing of gloves was mandatory.